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Barny blaze barrels through
Barnarwartha – known as Barny to the locals – lies to the northeast of Wang. On Sunday 20 December 2015, it lay at the centre of Victoria’s fire emergency with the local fire danger index higher than it had been on Black Saturday.
Of the nine brigades in the Rutherglen Group, seven fire stations and the Chiltern local command facility (LCF) were manned. They might have been thinking they’d gotten off lightly until the late call came through: a tree limb had fallen onto a powerline.
“Then it was just pandemonium,” says Rutherglen Group Officer Andrew Russell. “We were behind the eight-ball from the first minutes and that 10 minutes saved by crews being at their stations meant a huge amount. When the pager went off it was like a gunshot and there were more people on the fireground quickly than I’ve ever seen.”
He was radio operator in the FCV with the initial incident controller, Barny Captain Howard Smith, when the call was made to “Make tankers 50”.
“We realised this wasn’t a Level 2 incident,” says Andrew. “There were micro-climates and a 100 kilometre an hour wind change on the way. The best thing we did was handball it to the Level 3 ICC in Wodonga.
“We had initially sectorised the fire into west and east of the Hume. DGOs Geoff Barter and Trevor Cheeseman managed the west and Howard and I managed the east before handing over to Captain Frank Harbottle from Springhurst. We stayed on the east because we were very conscious of the southwest wind change and the risk it posed to Wodonga. Our priority was to hold and black out the northeast flank with what resources we had, while the rest of the team were up the valley.
“We had DGOs trying to track the fire and find its head. We knew we were in trouble and went into solid asset protection. Houses were under threat and there were reignitions everywhere. There were some close calls; some cut-and-runs.”
As the fire moved up the Indigo Valley, members turned out in their private units to black out behind fire trucks, with about 40 of them backing up Captain Frank. He calls it “the most dynamic fire I’ve ever been to”.
“They were often chasing their tails, blacking out a fire edge before a wind change created new fronts,” continues Andrew, “but that work was paramount.
“We were doing our damnedest to save houses and people and we did. It’s unfortunate that four houses were lost but many were saved. Some of that was sheer luck and some was good management and good fire plans but, at one point, I was wondering what it was going to take to stop this thing. We were chucking everything at it including a buffer of 30 trucks at the head as a buffer for Yackandandah.”
As night fell, about 12 millilitres of rain fell at Barny and 20 in the upper valley.
All the captains and other senior brigade managers at an early January debrief were in solid agreement that, while the rain was welcome, the work done beforehand by crews saved the day.
The debrief also included a ‘fog-of-war’ discussion: when there’s a fast-running fire, who has the information to give clear directions to assign crews to sectors; prioritising asset protection versus forward spread; communicating the red flag warning to private units; the security of the group area not burning; crews in trouble not calling a Mayday; and every fire being in the edge of the map book!
Operations Manager Paul King praised all crews who “used discipline and experience to make sense of chaos. The A team was on the fire.”
“The cranking up of the LCF played a key role in resourcing, dispatch and setting up the staging area at Barny,” continues Andrew. “Neighbouring groups and brigades came to our aid and I was extremely proud of the CFA fraternity. For every firefighter, there’s another person in the supply chain organising food, water and logistics.
“We backed each other: no question. I was humbled by the level of response and its cohesiveness.”
The fire reached 6732 hectares with a 180-kilometre boundary.